As is typical in an NBA game, Kobe Bean Bryant was the best player on the floor last night for most of the game. With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, however, Paul George may have won their personal battle and thus allowed the Pacers to win the game. After scoring 31 while hitting 13 his 24 shots during the first three quarters, Kobe managed only 2 points on 1-for-6 shooting in the final stanza. So while the contributions from other Pacers — like David West and George Hill in the first half, and Roy Hibbert throughout — were more visible, it’s hard to see the Pacers winning this game without the work Paul George put in on Kobe down the stretch.
Here is how those shots broke down.
Situation: 7:18 remaining, Lakers up 5
Play: Lakers inbound to Kobe on the baseline with under three seconds left on the shot clock. With George closing in a tight trail position, and Granger rotating from the inbound passer, Kobe is forced to launch a 15-foot fadeaway challenged by both of the Pacers wings.
Situation: 6:35 remaining, Lakers up 3
Play: Kobe curls off a Fisher down screen to catch the ball on the left wing with 12 on the shot clock. George evades the Fisher pick and slithers under Gasol’s attempted screen to cut off what could have been an open jumper from the top of the key. Kobe starts to work, probing the paint for a driving lane before spinning back and full-body-faking a step-back jumper. George stays with him, however, and Kobe fakes a spin before attacking the left side of the lane, angling away from the basket. Bryant never creates separation and is forced into a 10-foot fadeaway as George’s length allows him to get a hand (albeit the wrong one) in Kobe’s face without them tangling bodies.
Situation: 4:18 remaining, Lakers up 1
Play: Kobe comes off a down screen by Gasol to catch at the top of the key. George is in trailing position about 1-2 feet behind. Bryant jabs towards the paint, but collapsing Pacers’ help defense causes him to retreat. Looking back over his shoulder to find George, Kobe settles for a step-back 16-footer. George is able to close the gap more quickly than Bryant anticipates and once again gets his hand (the left on this time) in Kobe’s face.
Added Bonus: After challenging the shot, George leaks out on the break. Kobe just stands there admiring his missed fadeaway and the long rebound ricochets out to Darren Collison, who alertly feeds it down court to the streaking George. Paul beats the entire Lakers’ defense back for an uncontested transition dunk.
Situation: 3:47 remaining, Pacers up 1
Play: Lakers run a curl play for Matt Barnes who catches a nice feed from Pau Gasol and misses a tough, sweeping 8-foot runner. Because of the motion of the offense and Indiana’s defensive rotations, George winds up on the weakside with both Bynum and Bryant (and actually most directly matched up with Bynum). George squares to block out the Laker center, and the ball skips off the rim towards the baseline to a waiting Kobe. Bryant skies to get the board, gathers it and raises up to convert a tough 5-footer over Roy Hibbert.
Situation: 3:00 remaining, Pacers up 1
Play: Kobe comes off a Fisher down-screen in the right corner, making an excellent curl cut towards the rim. Once again, George is in a chase position. Hibbert shows defensively to slow Bryant’s attack, and by the time Kobe puts up his little shot in the lane, he is surrounded by Hibbert, Granger, and the now-fully-recovered George.
Situation: 0:04 remaining, Pacers up 3
Play: With the Lakers looking for a three to tie, Matt Barnes in-bounds the ball to Gasol on the right wing beyond the three-point line. The Pacers, apparently electing to defend rather than foul, leave Pau mostly alone as he dribbles towards Kobe. This allows Bryant to come up from the right corner to take a dribble hand-off heading towards the middle of the court. George is chasing close behind after avoiding Matt Barnes, who runs by him for misdirection. After the handoff, George closes the gap even with no real hedge attempt by David West, and Kobe pulls up for a 26-foot three pointer aimed through the fingers on Paul George’s outstretched hand.
Result: Miss, Pacer Rebound, Pacer win.
By and large, Paul George is playing top-shelf defense in the above videos. But perhaps even more impressive is what isn’t shown here: in the final three minutes of an incredibly tight game — on the Lakers’ home floor — Kobe Bryant went five Laker possessions, over a span of 2 minutes and 56 seconds, without getting up a shot.
However, you can’t get carried away. You’re only as good at guarding Kobe as your next possession, and the term “Kobe Stopper” is little more than arrogant twaddle. This is less about Paul vs. Kobe, and more about defining who Paul is as a defensive player. In his short career thus far, Paul George has turned in signature defensive performances against Dwyane Wade (see here), Derrick Rose (more on that here) and, now, Kobe Bryant.
Paul is still a second-year player. Less than a year ago, he was struggling to convince Jim O’Brien that he deserved to be ahead of Brandon Rush in the Pacers rotation. He still has much to learn the professional game, and he must develop a great deal as a player and a person to reach his potential. What is so striking about him, however, is that he is already so mature defensively. From the time he entered the Pacers locker room, he has been praised for his even-keeled nature. Never is this more evident than when you watch him patiently stalk a player like Derrick Rose or Kobe Bryant. In the fourth quarter last night, he never seemed panicked, he never seemed rushed. He understood the task before him, and he understood his advantages.
It’s important to note that he doesn’t succeed alone. The Pacers help defense stepped up last night as it did against Chicago in last April’s playoffs. There isn’t a man dead or alive who can stop guys like Kobe, Rose and Dwyane by themselves. Still, George became a seemingly omnipresent shadow to Kobe in the fourth quarter, and it increasingly seems that his combination of length and athleticism — once seasoned with experience — could make him a truly special defender.